Thinking About Interface Design

Posted by on Mar 20, 2014 in Digital Projects, Digital Scholarship | No Comments

For our prototyping project project Mike and I are working together to extend the work we started in our encoding challeng. Our source material for the encoding challenge was the unpublished revisions that Samuel Johnson made to his 1755 edition of A Dictionary of The English Language. For the encoding challenged we worked to develop XML code to markup a single revised dictionary entry, including the original published text, Johnson’s handwritten revisions, as well as any additional annotations and notes provided by Johnson scholar Allan Reddick. For the final project we though it would be interesting to test our initial coding schema by seeing if it could expand it out to include all the entries listed in a two-page spread of the dictionary, as well as develop an online interface for exploring this material.

We became interested in the problem of interface design very early on in the encoding challenge. As we were working our way through our XML code and the TEI guidelines, we found ourselves constantly checking our decisions against an imagined interface. Although we were not involved in a design process at that point in time, we found it helpful to consider if our tagging choices would allow us to create a flexible interface, that enabled seamless travel across multiple time frames, specifically: the published 1755 version of the dictionary, the handwritten revisions made to the dictionary in 1772, and the notes and annotations provided by Reddick in 2005.

For the final project we decided to take a more considered approach to the interface. Rather than imagining how a tool could function, we though tit would be interesting to see what challenges and opportunities arose from our efforts to actually build a framework for exploring this material. We’re still in the process of developing our web interface so many of the questions we are considering remain open at this point in time. We’re at the point where we just got all of our coded elements to appear on our site; we still need to develop the navigation and discovery tools. Given the point that we’re at in this project I thought I’d share some of the issues that we are looking to tackle as we continue to design, develop and polish the site:

  • Our goal is to create a digital tool that helps scholars track changes to a single document over time. Given this target, how do we develop a  design for the site that is appealing, that facilitates interaction and understanding, and that can contribute to interpretive and meaning-making practices?
  • If, as Hayles (2003) suggests,  every change in format results in a translation of a given text, what is gained and/or lost by our translation of both the Johnson’s primary material and Reddick’s secondary material into digital forms? How can we construct an interface that emphasizes that which is gained? How can we construct an interface that attends to that which is lost?
  • After so much interesting in-class discussion about the false dichotomy of content/form we know that our online tool is more than a mere container for our code and text, however, how do we operationalize  this understanding and move closer to what as Elish and Trettin (2009) call the expressive potential of the digital form?

These are just a few of the issues we are considering as we complete our project. So far, what has been most interesting is seeing how our digital tools (our XML code, our Drupal modules, our CSS) have been pushing back against us as we work to develop the interface. We may be very interested in pursuing a conceptual issue related to the interface, but if we can’t get that idea to work on the site, we often have to regroup and rethink our approach. For example, we had a heck of a time getting Drupal to target a specific attribute we added to one of our <entryFree> tags. Interestingly, these moments of blockage often result in even deeper thinking around the initial conceptual issue. As we spent time going over how and why the site was parsing the attribute in a way that was not desired, we realized how we could change our code structure to provide an even better visual and navigational experience. By combining a design project with our research practice, Mike and I have booth found that we have a deeper engagement with our source materials and with the theoretical issues related to the project.


Hayles, N. Katharine. “Translating Media: Why We Should Rethink Textuality.” Yale Journal of Criticism 16 (2003): 263-90.

Elish, M. C., & Trettien, W. (2009). Acts of Translation: Digital Humanites and the Archive Interface. Presented at the Media in Transition 6 Conference, Cambridge, MA.

Leave a Reply